Black Girl Nerds is building a geek empire from the outside

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Sep 12, 2017

Jamie Broadnax couldn't have expected, that night in 2012 when she first googled the term "Black Girl Nerds," that five years later, she'd be flying up from her home in Virginia to cover the Toronto International Film Festival. And even if that international trip -- her first -- was somewhere in the back of her mind, there's no way she could have expected to be making the trip with the financial backing of the creators and filmmakers behind some of her favorite movies and TV shows.

And yet, because that initial Google query came up empty, and because Broadnax has devoted the last half-decade to building up the site and community she founded to correct that search engine injustice, she's right now in Canada, doing interviews and live-tweeting the action to her more than 125,000 fans.

"Going to TIFF is expensive, so we launched a GoFundMe, and some of our biggest funders were celebrities," Broadnax told SYFY WIRE, more speaking in awe than with any intent to brag or flaunt her new connections. "Donors like Ava Duvernay and Cheo Hodari Coker, the showrunner of Luke Cage, who was our biggest donor with $600. I reached out them for a simple retweet; I never expected that they'd actually give us money to help us get out there."

It is exceedingly rare for a big-time creator in Hollywood to actively and independently push for a member of the press to attend an event, let alone pay for it. But Broadnax and her Black Girl Nerds network occupy an important, heretofore unfulfilled space on the Internet and the culture at large. As genre entertainment has mushroomed in popularity, its producers' traditional focus on white, straight male protagonists — and fans — has come further into focus. Broadnax provides a modicum of relief.

BGN both celebrates geek properties and calling out their lack of inclusion, demanding — and often helping to attain — a higher standard from some of the most profitable franchises in the world, as well as the other media outlets that cover them. The site's story on the recent John Boyega dancer flap, for example, was a crucial perspective that had been missing to that point.

And yet, just five years ago BGN was one woman's Blogspot journal, just a place for Broadnax to muse after she stopped running local movie scene blogs in New York and North Carolina. She was working a full-time job unrelated to pop culture and wanted a new outlet for her thoughts.

"I would write movie reviews on the site, and also just talk about what it's like feeling othered sometimes as a black woman in the space," she says. "It was very easy to just lay out a lot of these feelings and thoughts that had been circulating in my head for years, and I never had a platform for those things. So when BGN happened it was easy to write that stuff out, and lo and behold, there was a huge community of women who had felt the same way and became drawn to it."

BGN now has 25 or so regular volunteer blog, video and podcast contributors, and many more one-off writers; some are budding journalists, and others just want their voices heard. The site has over 200,000 monthly visitors and a growing podcast network. The over 125,000 Twitter followers can be chalked up to both the site's ongoing and real-time engagement with TV shows and the heretofore woefully underrepresented voice it adds to the cultural conversation.

"The Twitter account she had allowed us to connect with one another, because a lot of black women who identified as black girl nerds grew up in isolation," the author Shelly Stratton, an early fan of the site, said. "And finally we had a chance to say oh, OK, there's actually a community of people just like me."

Black Girl Nerds provides not only a place for like-minded fans to geek out but also push back. An extensive study of the industry put out earlier this year by UCLA found that in 2014-15, only 11% of actors on broadcast scripted TV shows were black, and cable wasn't much better at 13%. Film is famously even less diverse. BGN aims to offer a voice to fans who want to see themselves reflected not just on discussion boards, but on TV as well.

That collective voice is beginning to be heard: on Monday, Broadnax was announced as a member of the SYFY advisory board.

Early on, Stratton suggested that Broadnax write a book. But the idea was too daunting a prospect at the time, as she was already stretched thin, holding down a full-time job and running BGN during the idle hours of her day in addition to nights and weekends. She's still working that job, as an marketing assistant at a law firm, but with the growth of the site, coupled with Stratton's promise to co-author, she finally agreed to pitch BGN to publishers.

They came up with the proposal in about two weeks, pitching a mix of narrative and comics that will tell both Broadnax's own story as a fan, along with interviews with many other geeky women of color. With the help of Stratton's agent, they took it out to publishers; the response was indicative of the larger media market, with interest falling along a generational fault line.

"A lot of the editors who got it were the younger editors," Stratton says. "They were like, I've heard of Jamie or I totally have friends who are like this. Some of the publishers had to drop out, because the younger editors were like, I was trying to sell this to my publishing house and they just didn't get it. They couldn't get the concept, like what's the big deal?"

Still, there was enough heat that the proposal sold within a month to Penguin Random House in a competitive bid. The book will be edited by Porscha Burke, who acquired books by Maya Angelou and works with another prominent black nerd: Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is currently writing Marvel's Black Panther comic.

"The book's about the intersection of black feminism with nerd culture," Broadnax says. "We interviewed black women within the BGN community who are gamers, cosplayers, women who have dealt with the issue of feeling marginalized at conventions and things of that nature. We talked about everything: dating and relationships to being considered ‘acting white' at school because they didn't fit the definitions of what a black woman should sound and be like."

They interviewed around 70 women, but that lingering definition of what a black woman should sound and be like still holds strong in halls of power run by white men. Neither support from celebrities nor a book deal with a major publisher has led to any whiff of funding from venture capitalists or acquisition feelers from larger media companies. She's reached out to venture capitol groups like Matter VC, but interest has always fallen short of the always elusive level at which people are willing to invest in diversity.

"It'd be nice to get funding, hopefully it'll happen sooner or later," she says, weary of not paying her writers or making much money herself on what is basically a second full-time job. "I could probably take a guess and try to figure out why people haven't reached out, and my guess is people think that it's super niche, and somehow or other it's exclusive or only meant for a certain group of people, but that's never been the case."

The third annual Black Girl Nerds of Color meetup, in July

That point is underscored by the fact that Broadnax is one of the fan leaders in charge of Universal Fan Con, a new convention that aims at emphasizing diversity and accessibility; already, the cast of American Gods is set to appear, along with other big names Broadnax is helping to rope in.

Still, there is no shortage of minor and regional fan conventions, each of which scores some sort of celebrity presence, given just how lucrative those appearances have become. But Broadnax suggests that Universal Fan Con's decision to empower minority fans — and make it more accessible for disabled guests — sets it apart. "FanBros, Geek Soul Brother, Graveyard Shift Sisters and more bloggers and podcasters of color are spreading the word about the con," she says.

Meanwhile, Broadnax's time in Toronto has been productive; she hosted the first sponsored Black Girl Nerds event, picking up the tab for food and drinks for the many guests. As for her time in screening rooms, "I've been focusing on movies that are a little bit obscure," she says, "but are directed by or feature people of color in them."

So while most reporters there scrambled to cover the Oscar contenders, Broadnax is once again providing an alternative.